A priest for ever

A priest for ever

Last night, on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Michael Gallacher was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

Michael and I started in the seminary together, and I count him among my closest friends. We should have finished in the seminary together, but midway through our fifth year, Archbishop Hart sent Michael to Rome for further study. That is testament in itself to Michael’s intellect, dedication, and leadership.

It was very moving to see Michael ordained a priest last night, and to be there this morning when he offered his first mass at his home parish. In fact it was every bit as moving as my own ordination nine months ago.

There might be a few reasons for this. Seminary life is not always easy, and it forges strong and lasting friendships. Every time a brother seminarian leaves, it’s something of a blow to those who remain. Doubly so when it’s someone from your own year level. When a brother seminarian is ordained a priest, it’s a great joy. Now, I find, it is doubly so when it’s someone from your own year level.

But another reason comes to mind. This is the first priestly ordination I have attended since becoming a priest myself. I count it a real privilege that I should lay hands for the first time on the head of one of my best friends. But now it’s not only a shared vocation and shared history which unites us. We’re also united by the priesthood itself.

Again and again as a seminarian, and especially on the occasion of my own ordination, priests remarked that I filled them with hope. Not me specifically. Or rather, not me exclusively. But all those men who discerned a priestly call and assented. But it wasn’t until last night that I really understood what they meant.

Seeing a man ordained a priest, as a priest myself, gave me new insight into the mystery of sacramental orders. “A priest is not his own,” goes the old saying. Nor, it can be added, is his priesthood his own. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ the High Priest, who has permitted me to share in his ministerial priesthood. I was acutely aware of that last night, as I watched my brother and my friend receive the same share.

The hope and joy which I experienced was not sectarian or self-satisfied: “Another one joins the club, affirming my own choice.” That doesn’t capture it. It was hope in the priesthood. The Lord’s priesthood: the marvellous gift of redemption and salvation which Jesus has given men and women. And again I was filled with awe and gratitude that the Lord had called me to share in his this.

Perhaps Fr Michael’s ordination was so evocative of my own because in some ecclesial sense, our ordinations – and every priestly ordination – is the one event, in a way analogous to the unity of every mass with the sacrifice at Calvary, offered once and for all. Or maybe I’m lurching into heresy – unintentionally of course!

In any event, I wasn’t the only one to share Fr Michael’s joy last night. The centre pews of St Patrick’s Cathedral were full from front to back with a remarkable microcosm: family, Whitefriar old boys, mates from footy and athletics and umpiring, friends from Monash and the Catholic Theological College and NET Ministries, young and old, believers and non-believers.

All of them were there to support Michael, and in many cases to pray for him. But ordinations – like all sacramental celebrations – can bring many unexpected graces on such observers. One of those graces is a much needed one: a prompting from the Lord to follow him in a particular vocation. To lay down one’s life for him, and for the world. Be it priestly or religious or another form of life.

In his words of thanks at the end of last night’s mass, Fr Michael remarked that he had no doubt there were young men in that vast congregation whom God was calling to the priesthood. I don’t doubt it either. The following image came to mind which captures something, I think, of the grace of last night’s event.

A small boy spontaneously imitates the ordinands,
prostrate before the Lord during the Litany of Saints.

The Catholic voice in public debate

Many readers would be familiar by now with the recent news of Leah Libresco, who previously blogged at Patheos’ atheist portal, under the banner: Unequally Yoked: a geeky atheist picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend. Not anymore. Now Libresco blogs under the banner: Unequally Yoked: a geeky convert picks fights in good faith.

Since Libresco joined Max Lindeman over at Patheos’ Catholic portal, Lindeman was bound to blog about Libresco’s high-profile conversion sooner or later. And so he has, providing a typically thoughtful meditation on intellectual conversion and the evangelisation of our modern culture. He makes many claims in that post which I agree with, but I’m not so sure about this one:

These days, Christians had better sound smart. The dice are cogged against authority. Cite the Bible, any pope, or either Vatican Council, and you’ll probably hear “So what?” If Christianity wants to survive as a cultural force, or inform public policy, it had better explain itself in terms intelligible to people who reject its supernatural basis.

It’s not crystal clear what Linderman means by this. If he means that we shouldn’t argue from authority, and fundamentalism is better eschewed, then of course I agree whole-heartedly. We must argue from reason — but not rationalism. Just because some of our listeners reject our supernatural basis, doesn’t mean we should reject our supernatural arguments.

In the seminary, though, I was taught otherwise. Here are a few examples of the claims some of our professors made:

  • We can only win the pro-life debates by appealing to a secular humanist account of human rights and dignity. Leave God out of it.
  • We can only win the debate about gay marriage by appealing to the natural institution of marriage, and the precedent of cultural history. Leave the Theology of the Body out of it.
  • We can only win the God debate by invoking philosophical grounds for theism. Leave Christian revelation out of it.

Sometimes these rules are good to follow. In the political campaigns to introduce euthanasia, it is advisable for Catholics to cultivate a broad alliance with other interested parties — the medical practicioners who do not want a license to kill patients, the lobby groups who represent the most likely targets of euthanasia, other religious objectors. In that case, it is much better to argue from common ground, and leave the Catholic apologetics for another time.

But over all, I think these rules have been disastrous. The Catholic Church has been on the backfoot for years, and still we are told that the only way forward is to keep doing what we’re doing? “Argue from the natural law (but don’t call it natural law), and people of different faiths and no faith will be convinced. (And ignore the fact that we’re even losing the case with Catholics themselves!)”

An example of where this approach won’t work, I think, is the debate over same sex marriage. Here we have an opportunity to present the good news about sex and marriage which is very specific to the Christian tradition. It’s deeply theological and even supernatural, so it’s going to offend some people, and bamboozle others. But it’s also deeply attractive, and tragically unknown by the majority of Christians themselves — including couples who have received the sacrament of marriage!

The good news is attractive because Christ is attractive. But in a well-intentioned bid to avoid offence and foster harmony, we sometimes forget to mention Christ! The Lord’s remarks about the light and the bushel come to mind.

This post was prompted by a presentation at the clergy conference I’ve been attending. Dr Gerard O’Shea argued that an exaggerated distinction between grace and nature has produced a sort of dualism which impedes the Church’s evangelisation. His paper is available to download, but I haven’t had time yet to read it. Here’s an appetiser:

In moving into the Roman world, the first Christians encountered a secular culture whose social, political and cultural characteristics bore a striking resemblance to the contemporary period. Yet these Christians did not feel constrained to present only those aspects of their message that would be acceptable. For most of its history, the presentation of a Christian message in the “public square” has entailed both theological and philosophical perspectives. Today, Catholics seem “self-limited” by an unspoken demand that they argue solely from philosophical and scientific positions in public debates. This approach often fails to present a distinctively Christian viewpoint. As early as 1946, Henri de Lubac pointed out that this side-lining of the Christian view was not solely the result of secularist agitation. Since the sixteenth century, the generally accepted notion that human reality is composed of two separate dimensions – natural and a supernatural – has given the impression that one can speak of a discrete natural order which is unaffected by grace.

When Catholics confine themselves to naturalistic arguments, they deceive no one. Secularists – who argue from their own perspective of “belief” – are able to accuse their Catholic opponents of having a hidden agenda, and of lacking the courage of their convictions by concealing what really motivates them. Any movement away from this situation is likely to be met with derision. Nevertheless, while neither Christians nor Secularists should impose their political views on others, Catholics should feel free to mount the full range of their arguments in public and should reject the notion that they are bound by rules of engagement set by their intellectual opponents.

I’m looking forward to reading it, and posting a proper treatment. In the meantime though, I have located a short passage from Fulton Sheen’s autobiography which seems to vindicate part of the thesis. Here the Archbishop recalls a trip to Athens, where he followed the footsteps of St Paul:

Every night I went to Mars Hill and reread that famous speech of St Paul in chapter 17 of Acts. From the point of view of rhetoric and pedagogy it was a perfect speech. First he began with a tribute that was to win their souls. Paul spoke about how God made the universe, was the Lord of Heaven and earth, did not dwell in temples made with hands (such as the beautiful one he was looking on); that He made of one blood every nation of men that dwelled upon the face of the earth, fixing the limits and extent of their habitation, and inspiring them to seek God even though they might be groping in the darkness. God, Paul said, was not far from any one of them. As the poet put it, “We are all His offspring.” Paul then jumped to the subject of Judgement and the Resurrection.

He made only two converts — a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. The talk was not a success. It was rather one of Paul’s great failures. He left the city immediately after the talk and walked to Corinth. He never went back to Athens, never wrote a letter to the Athenians, and there is no record he established a church in Athens.

As I sat evening after evening reading that speech, it finally dawned on me why St Paul had failed in that talk. He had failed to mention the Name of Christ and His Crucifixion. I am sure that as he walked that dusty road between Athens and Corinth he must have said over and over again what he later wrote to the Corinthians: “I am resolved among you to know nothing but Christ and Him Crucified.”

Spiritual friendships

Spiritual friendships

Today’s Office of Readings continues Samuel’s account of the rift between Saul and David. Jonathan, however, is unfailing in his loyalty to David, whom he loved “as his own soul.”

The Second Reading takes up the theme of spiritual friendship. St Aelred presents David and Jonathan as outstanding examples of “a true and perfect friendship, solid and eternal.”

I imagine our Lord cultivated similar friendships with the Twelve. Jesus was not a mere acquaintance, nor a distant rabbi. He confided in the apostles, and probably showed them a lot of affection. They must have been, I think, very close. Which means their absence at his trial and execution must have hurt Jesus deeply. Nonetheless, his friendship was such that it enabled the apostles — Judas excepted — to forgive themselves, to accept the Lord’s forgiveness, and renew their love and devotion.

It’s probably fair to say that in the present day, close and affectionate friendships between men are rare. I’m not sure I agree with the author of today’s Universalis reflection, that these relationships are frequently eroticised:

Once upon a time, there was friendship. Once upon a time, society accepted that the love of friends could be the single most important thing in a person’s life, and they did more than just accept, they celebrated the fact . . . But today no love is accepted as valid that is not in some way sexual, and even if we set out to reject the sex-obsessed outlook of today’s society, we think in those terms despite ourselves. When St Aelred writes of “this most loving youth”, we all say to ourselves “oh yes” in a knowing way, sure that we have guessed the smutty truth.

But then again, the popular term for such relationships these days is “bromance,” so perhaps I’m being naive.

Though it is only vaguely connected, this ad is funny enough to demand inclusion, on the shaky presmise that it illustrates the importance of close mates in a happy marriage:

St Josemaría Escrivá and me

St Josemaría Escrivá and me

Today was the feast day of a saint who is very dear to me. In St Josemaría Escrivá I see an inspiring model for current-day priests, engaging with a secular and in some respects ‘post-Christian’ culture.

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?, since I am a member of Opus Dei. But that’s confusing the cart and the horse. I was attracted to Opus Dei only after reading and coming to love St Josemaría.

When I left home at 18 to study in Melbourne, I was both idealistic and sceptical. At 18, who isn’t? I was attracted to Christ and his Gospel, but I was disillusioned with a Church which was bereft of authority. The scandal of clerical abuse and its cover-up was in the headlines and on my mind, and lacklustre liturgy and preaching didn’t help either.

My Catholic identity was tenuous. I may have been easy prey for the evangelical Christians on campus, except that my childhood love of the saints — St Thérèse especially — had not left me. The distant figure of Archbishop Pell also commanded respect, if only because he spoke boldly and against the tide, and he had been chaplain in my first years at primary school. Still, I did not know personally any priests, nor did I want to. I doubt I’d ever have changed denominations, but I was probably on track to become a “mere Christian,” cultivating a personal spirituality and private prayer life, independent of “organised religion.”

Nonetheless, one’s first year at university is a time to explore everything. I attended the meetings and functions of all sorts of clubs and societies, from the fickle (the Chocolate Appreciation Society; the Free Beer Society) to the radical (the Socialist Alliance; the Citizen’s Electoral Council). I watched the Students for Christ debate the Humanists, and I joined an evangelical Christian book club. An invitation to dinner at an Opus Dei study centre was just one more function to add to the list. I was supposed to attend a preached meditation (whatever that was), but I was running late, and arrived just in time for Simple Benediction. The presence of a fully fledged chapel in a suburban house — not to mention the unfamiliar sight of a priest in cassock and the alien sound of Latin (the ritual concluded with the Salve Regina) — quickly convinced me that I had encountered a cult which was far removed from mainstream Catholicism. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the conversation and debate at dinner, which covered such diverse topics as the best imported beer, the Australian wheat price, and the cultural influence of Peter Sellers. Much to my surprise, religion wasn’t mentioned at all.

Subsequent invitations to meditation and dinner were gladly accepted, and I was impressed by the spiritual content of the preaching, and the easygoing warmth of the rest of the evening. This stood in stark contrast to my encounters at the evangelical book club, which were terminated after my Catholic background was discovered, and I was forcefully and repeatedly subjected to anti-papist rants.

Still, I sustained a polite disinterest in Opus Dei until I was given a copy of The Way, a small book of spiritual maxims which made “Father Joseph Mary Escriva” famous decades before anyone had heard of Opus Dei. Several weeks passed before I picked it up, but when I did I couldn’t put it down. Its insights startled me. It was as though Josemaría had read my heart and mind, and spoke directly to me. Moreover, there was a warmth and attractiveness to his style which had me looking for more.

It all happened quite gradually of course, but looking back, I think it’s fair to say that St Josemaría taught me to love the Church just as I already loved Jesus Christ. Thus this video — which I had not seen before today — is a very apt illustration of that style:

I think it’s also fair to credit St Josemaría with my priestly vocation. Years before I thought of becoming a priest, I thought of becoming a saint. That has its roots in my discovery of St Thérèse’s “Little Way” at eight or nine, and Mum’s assurance that God calls us all to be saints. This is St Josemaría’s message too, and I was able to discern a priestly calling only after adopting the sort of prayer life he recommended for lay apostles.

There Be Dragons is an average movie of uneven quality, but it does a very good job depicting St Josemaría’s vision. I’m proud and humbled to call myself one of his spiritual children.

Keeping it positive

Keeping it positive

No sooner did I publish that last post, that I regretted it. My spiritual director suggested a few months ago that I would do better to keep my blog positive. He acknowledged that controversy attracts traffic, but controversy doesn’t have to be negative.

For what it’s worth, more than one reader agreed. I received several comments, and more e-mails, querying my decision to comment on the Fr Kevin Lee news story.

I don’t think the post below on the Legionaries of Christ is negative per se, but it’s not exactly positive either. All this was going through my mind when I visited my favourite blogger, whose latest post right addresses this very topic:

This weekend at the Catholic Media Conference in Indianapolis, Bishop Christopher Coyne who once served as spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, offered some advice to folks in my line of work. Point one: Take the high road. Point two: Stay on message, meaning, the Good News. Point three: Build up, rather than tear down. It does sound a bit like a recipe for editorial blandness. It definitely sounds like an invitation for pundits to re-direct their rage inward, or toward their pets. But, as Coyne demonstrates, all of his points have their roots in Scripture, not to mention common sense. The Church as a body, and each of its individual members, already have all the enemies they need.

Read it all. It’s Lindenman at his finest.

As for me, I’m going to lay off for the rest of the day. I haven’t posted this much in a single day since I was a seminarian. If you didn’t know it already, you might have guessed today is the first day of a short holiday. There’s no place like airports to incite serial blogging!